Travel's Best Wonders of the World 2015
Much has been made over the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World — and the many subsequent lists — but which sites are must-sees for the modern traveler? Our experts, including Expedition Unknown explorer Josh Gates, have collectively crisscrossed the globe in search of unrivaled man-made and natural wonders. Here’s their definitive list of the 7 new wonders that all travelers should add to their bucket list.
Video: Travel’s Best Wonders of the WorldAdd these 7 new wonders to your bucket list.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The lost city of Angkor is one of the world's most impressive architectural wonders in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap. With more than 100 intricately carved 12th-century Khmer temples and sacred shrines, it is epic in size, scope and artistic detail. Angkor Wat is best seen with a guide who can decipher its famous apsaras (thousands of nymphs carved into the walls, each one unique) and navigate the best routes.
“A visit here is almost a mystical experience,” says travel junkie Julia Dimon. Watching the sun rise over the imposing Angkor Wat temple — one of the largest religious monuments in the world — offers travelers a sacred moment of self-reflection and solitude. “Scrambling over spectacular, vine-covered Khmer temples, your innate sense of exploration and discovery is unleashed,” Julia says.
“The ancient Rose-Red City of Petra in Jordan is much more than a scene from Indiana Jones; it’s one of the world’s most impressive ancient sites,” says Matt Long. “From the 3/4-mile-long entrance through a narrow slot canyon to the massive building carved into the mountain, Petra rarely fails to impress visitors, as it has done for more than 2,000 years.”
Visitor numbers to Petra have dwindled in the past few years because of unrest in neighboring Iraq and Syria; however, there are no travel advisories currently in place, putting it in the same category as Thailand or Turkey, where tourists are just advised against border areas. Plans to resurrect tourism are already underway, so now may be the time to experience this sandstone city — established as early as the third century BC — and feel as though you have the place to yourself.
Great Barrier Reef
Off the coast of Queensland, Australia, sits an underwater treasure: the largest coral reef system in the world, known simply as the Great Barrier Reef. “Its size is daunting — it can be seen from outer space — but that doesn’t stop the millions who visit every year to experience not only the warm tropical waters, but also the amazing diversity of life hidden just beneath the waves,” says Matt Long.
“One of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on Earth,” according to UNESCO, the reef is home to 3,000 individual coral reefs and 1,500 species of tropical fish and sharks. It also serves as a breeding ground for humpback whales. If this dive is on your bucket list, don’t delay: Recent plans for rapid coastal development have leading scientists worried about the fate of the reef.
“The great polar wonder of the aurora borealis has captivated imaginations for millennia, but it’s also one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders,” says Matt Long of LandLopers.com. “These dancing sheets of greens and pinks across the night sky may have their origins in outer space, but their effect on those of us here on Earth certainly can’t be denied.”
Even the best-laid plans need a bit of luck to glimpse this beguiling phenomenon, but experienced aurora-watchers have it down to a science: go between December and March to significantly up your chances of a cloudless night sky, with the hour between 10 and 11 p.m. being the optimal viewing time. You can see the northern lights from Norway, Sweden, Finland and even northern Canada, but we suggest setting up camp in Reykjavik, Iceland, to take advantage of Wow Air’s new ultra-low-cost flights (as low as $99 from Boston or Baltimore, as of spring 2015) and a daytime soak in the Blue Lagoon.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
The shining star of Myanmar, this soaring temple and ancient Buddhist stupa sits on a high hill at the heart of the country’s largest city, Yangon. The temple is like a small city, dominated by a 325-foot gilded spire at its center, says Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates. It is “at times blissful and quiet, and at other moments a chaotic ballet of supplicants making offerings, washing statues, lighting candles and ringing bells,” he says.
The magnificent sky — and the cooling temperature — at sunset make it the ideal time for barefoot visitors (it’s required to remove your shoes upon entering) to stroll clockwise around the pagoda. Visitors in early March can attend the recently reinstated Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, which brings a festive atmosphere to the already humbling experience.
“It’s huge, it’s maddeningly hard to get to, and it’s all but impossible to thoroughly explore, but that’s what makes it great,” says Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates. “Antarctica is the last unspoiled place on Earth, and aside from a handful of brave (or crazy) explorers and scientists, it has held off humanity with an icy grip. But now, it’s finally possible to experience the bottom of the world and come back to tell the tale.”
In the Antarctic summer (November through March), ships are crossing the Drake Passage in record numbers to give visitors a look at our mysterious seventh continent. Despite the exorbitant cost, many choose to fly, then cruise to avoid a choppy 2-day crossing of the Drake. “I sailed here several years ago aboard a tiny, steel-hulled sailboat, and what surprised me the most was how beautiful and full of life this place is,” Josh says. “Penguins, seals, whales, seabirds and hearty humans are thriving in one of the most silent, raw and spectacular landscapes on Earth.”
Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Straddling the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, this incredible natural wonder is one of the world's largest waterfalls. “A visit here makes you appreciate why the locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means ‘the smoke that thunders,’” says Julia Dimon. “Upon arrival to the falls, travelers will journey down a trail, leading them just a few hundred feet from the unrelenting, cascading waters.”
The mile-wide section of the Zambezi River plunges more than 300 feet into the basalt gorge below. “Standing there, mist in your face, surrounded by mini rainbows, you truly appreciate the energy and intensity of Mother Nature,” Julia says. “It humbles you and leaves you with an overwhelming sense of awe.” How close you can get depends on whether you’re willing to brave the Knife Edge footbridge or bungee jump from Zambezi River Bridge.